Roe v. Wade is on a respirator and South Dakota is embroiled in a fight over whether to pull the plug. Within a context of perceived moral obligation to the fetus, abortion issues confound liberal principles of freedom and ownership over one’s body almost irreparably.
Abortion is an issue rife with physical and emotional complications. Sloganeering by individuals for and against fails to capture the nuance of the debate.
South Dakota’s restrictive abortion law, which outlaws most cases of abortion, including pregnancy from rape, is an attempt to package morality in a clearly defined box.
Beyond its assertions of clear scientific conclusion lies an even more troubling rhetoric, one which pits the rights of a pregnant woman against the rights of her undelivered fetus and questions her capacity to make rational decisions regarding her own body.
Voters will decide this November on the legality of that law, the South Dakota Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act (HB 1215).
HB 1215 was levied last spring as a challenge to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court Decision that ruled a Texas abortion law unconstitutional.
Prior to the first trimester of a pregnancy, Roe v. Wade stated, "the abortion decision and its effucation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician." After the first trimester, the decision allowed the state to regulate abortion "for the preservation of the life or health of the mother."
Proponents of HB 1215 hope to induce a new decision under the current, conservative court. But opponents of HB1215 collected signatures for a referendum, taking their chances with the people of South Dakota rather than bringing a case before the Supreme Court.
HB1215 is constructed around the findings of a 72-page report by the South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion (SDTFSA), which outlined an argument peppered with testimonies that a fetus is a complete human being and claims that women who have abortions suffer major psychological consequences.
The SDTFSA report claims testimony from a series of experts proves that a fetus is alive and fully human from conception: "It can no longer be doubted that the unborn child from the moment of conception is a whole separate human being."
Ignore for a moment the presumptuous nature of this claim. Disregard the fallacy of ever asserting that science, which is based on a foundation of doubt and the careful consideration of all claims, has made a definitive conclusion regarding the status of a fetus.
Critics challenge the legitimacy of SDTFSA’s scientific findings in even simpler terms: good-old-fashioned political skewing.
Kate Looby, director of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, who gave testimony to the task force, said paragraphs and sentences were chopped from the document approved at a SDTFSA meeting in December 2005.
Overlaying the report’s questionable scientific claims, its language effectively downplays the capacity of women to decide for themselves whether abortion is appropriate.
Abortion and the doctors who perform them, the report finds, deny women a "constitutionally protected relationship" with their "unborn child." One would suppose, by the language employed, that doctors were performing abortions on helpless unsuspecting patients, wresting away their control.
Similarly, the report admonishes Planned Parenthood, stating that the organization’s descriptions of the abortion make no reference to the presence of the fetus ("unborn child," again). It is difficult to fathom that any woman would be unaware of that presence.
Abortion is not the ideal end to pregnancy.
Ideally, women who become pregnant would always do so of their own will. Ideally, rape would never occur. Ideally, children would never be born with debilitating degenerative diseases. The world has never been ideal.
Voters in South Dakota have an opportunity to overturn the specious moralizing of HB1215, without intervention from the Supreme Court.
New versions of the law will likely appear on the South Dakota ballot loosening some of the original restrictions of HB1215. The debate is interminable, but that’s no reason to give up.